Friday, July 03, 2020

With millions ordered to stay home in the D.C. region, police are stressing education, not enforcement

Apr 05. 2020
A U.S. Park Police vehicle and officer block the open lane on Arlington Memorial Bridge on the Virginia side of the Potomac River. D.C. and Park Police blocked every access to the blooming cherry blossoms along the Tidal Basin on March 28. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by John McDonnell
A U.S. Park Police vehicle and officer block the open lane on Arlington Memorial Bridge on the Virginia side of the Potomac River. D.C. and Park Police blocked every access to the blooming cherry blossoms along the Tidal Basin on March 28. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by John McDonnell
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By The Washington Post · Justin Jouvenal, Peter Hermann, Dan Morse · NATIONAL, HEALTH, COURTSLAW · 

When the leaders of D.C., Maryland and Virginia announced unprecedented stay-at-home orders this week to control spread of the coronavirus, the moves sparked questions about how far police might go to enforce them.

But as one of the nation's largest metropolitan regions has snapped shut, the campaign to keep people from going out for all but the most essential trips to jobs, grocery stores, doctors and pharmacies has so far relied more on education than enforcement.

A stay-at-home explainer released from the Prince George's County, Md., government. MUST CREDIT: Prince George's County

Police across all three jurisdictions have the power to charge residents with misdemeanors if they violate the stay-at-home orders - a conviction can carry jail time and fines in the thousands. But a Washington Post survey of local departments has found only one such arrest in the region in the first days the orders were in effect.

Local police departments have also made clear they won't employ more heavy-handed tactics some residents feared, like checkpoints, random stops of drivers to ensure their trips are essential and asking people to present documentation about why they are out. 

Instead, nearly every department has told officers to urge people to follow the new rules and rely on arrests only as a final option. 

For instance, D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham has instructed officers to make an arrest only if the suspect does not "voluntarily comply" with the order, and then only after getting permission from the watch commander. And, according to the directive, the watch commander "shall consider all other options" before making an arrest or issuing a citation.

"Recognizing there is confusion and this is a difficult time for everyone, the guidance given to officers is to take an opportunity to educate the public, gain voluntary compliance and criminal enforcement is a last resort," Arlington (Virginia) Police spokeswoman Ashley Savage said. "Our goal continues to be to gain voluntary compliance through education."

The gentler approach is playing out in different ways across the region, but it has mostly resulted in officers issuing warnings to nonessential businesses and larger groups of people congregating in parks, playgrounds and ballfields, officials said.

In D.C. on Tuesday, a police officer used the loudspeaker in his patrol car to urge a large groups of walkers and runners at Capitol Hill's Lincoln Park to disperse. The scene played out one day before Mayor Muriel Bowser's stay-at-home order officially went into effect, but after she announced it.

"Attention everyone. Attention everyone. We are currently in a public health emergency," the officer told the crowd. "Your gathering puts both you and others at unnecessary risk. We encourage you to use proper social distancing and refrain from gathering in large groups." 

In Fairfax County, Virginia, officials said 52 resource officers for the now-closed schools have been redeployed to handle complaints about stay-at-home order violations and other minor issues by working the phones. They only escalate the issues to patrol officers if they can't gain compliance with a call.

In Maryland, the state police have proactively checked more than 8,800 shops and restaurants to ensure they have remained closed since Gov. Larry Hogan ordered a shutdown on nonessential businesses on March 24, a spokesman said.

Police officials said there had been little resistance to the stay-at-home orders, something they attributed to the grim threat of a pandemic and the fact that area residents dealt with increasing restrictions in the weeks leading up to stay-at-home orders.

There have not been a flood of complaints to police departments about people violating the orders. As of Thursday, the Maryland State Police and the state's other local departments have fielded 615 calls for violations of the stay-at-home and other orders by the governor since March 24, the governor's office said. The Loudoun County (Virginia) Sheriff's Office has handled 68 calls for overcrowding during the same period. Fairfax County police have only handled about eight a day related to the stay-at-home order last week.

"We have been getting voluntary compliance," Fairfax County Police Chief Edwin C. Roessler Jr. said.

Still, there have been some issues. 

In Prince George's County, Maryland, on Tuesday, police officers told a group of people who were panhandling and asking people if they wanted car washes at a gas station in Landover to go home because of the stay-at-home order, according to a news release. 

One of the people refused to comply, became combative and was pepper-sprayed, police said. The man was charged with failure to comply with a state emergency and other counts.

Maryland State Police report there have been seven arrests for violating orders issued by Hogan since March 24. On March 29 before the current stay-at-home order in Maryland, the MSP charged a man with hosting a party for teens at a hotel in Carroll County in violation of the governor's order banning the assembly of more than 10 people, police said. Two days earlier, a Charles County man was arrested and accused of refusing to shut down a bonfire party of about 60 people at his home. The latter story generated national headlines.

As of Thursday in Virginia, the state police and several local departments in the Washington region had not reported any arrests related to the stay-at-home order or other restrictions by Gov. Ralph Northam.

ACLU chapters in D.C., Maryland and Virginia have not received complaints related to the enforcement of the orders, spokespeople said. They were concerned about police resorting to arrests, given the threat of coronavirus in some local jails.

"Arrest should be the very last resort, especially because we should instead be focused on reducing the number of people in detention," Meredith Brooks, an ACLU of Maryland spokeswoman wrote in an email.

But while police report most citizens are complying with the stay-at-home orders, some officials worry residents may be tempted to congregate again as the orders drag on and warm spring weather arrives.

"I'm concerned if the weather gets better people are not going to adhere to social distancing and neighbors are going to spread it to neighbors," Roessler said.

 

 

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